Squatters evicted from the so-called Pope Squat at 1510 King W. are planning to move back in, according to Sue Collis of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP).

OCAP has received legal advice saying that because of confusion over ownership of the building, the group may be in a legal position to repair the building-code violations that led the fire marshal to order the Oct. 29 eviction.

“We just heard back from our lawyer,” Collis says. “The province is saying that they do not own the building and that they are not telling anyone to do anything. That means that the fire marshal’s office has greatly overstepped its boundaries” in evicting the squatters and securing the building. Collis believes this means OCAP may be able to lawfully return to the building and renovate it.

However, even if it turns out the group can’t legally go back in, it still plans to return. “For us it’s just a question of the degree of preparation that will be necessary,” Collis says.

OCAP has received offers of labour and materials from tradespeople affiliated with the Canadian Labour Congress to address fire hazards . The eviction of the Pope Squat marked the end of a three-month détente between local authorities and OCAP, during which the city made no attempt to remove the squatters from the building.

Division chief of fire prevention Jack Collins said fire-code violations in the building posed an “immediate threat to life.” The violations included exposed wiring, fire doors off their hinges and a disconnected smoke-alarm system. OCAP says that had it received prior notice of the list of violations, it would have taken care of them.

Collins admitted just after the eviction that the ownership of the building is in doubt. “We notified the province [which he believes owns the building] on Wednesday,” he said, “and the province denies ownership.” The fire marshal’s posted notice is addressed to the “Public Guardian” at 595 Bay Street, where the office of the attorney general is located.

OCAP thinks the province is failing to acknowledge ownership for political reasons. “I think that in the backrooms the province is kind of saying they own it,” Collis says.

She believes provincial politicians don’t want to take responsibility for evicting people from a vacant building as the cold weather sets in, so “they’re using the fire marshal’s office as a tool.”

Collis says that the recent wave of confrontations with authorities, of which the Pope Squat eviction is the latest, will not affect OCAP’s “Give It or Guard It” campaign, in which the group has been informing authorities of their plans prior to taking action.

“There’s no change in our strategy,” Collis says. “People are really angry right now. The beauty of [the Give-It-or-Guard-It tactic] is that it gives the police a choice. And if they choose to serve and protect these empty buildings,” it looks silly to most people, Collis says.

OCAP says 25 people had been living in the Pope Squat building but only about 10 of them were home when police and fire officials arrived to clear and secure the building.

Most of those present left without a struggle, but three people were arrested after a brief scuffle between police and protesters shortly before 2pm.

Many anti-poverty activists had thought the peace surrounding the Pope Squat over the past few months represented hope of a new way of tackling the homelessness crisis in Toronto. Several events over the past few weeks indicate that authorities have changed their approach.

Demonstrators clashed with police on Oct. 26, during a “Give It or Guard It” march, during which protesters tried to occupy two vacant buildings. They were turned away from one of the target buildings and convinced by an overwhelming police presence to leave the other after less than half an hour’s occupation.

OCAP had released the location of the two buildings it would try to squat to police before the march, hoping that the city would choose to allow the occupations rather than clash with protesters.

On Sept. 24, Home Depot closed down the high-profile Tent City settlement at Lakeshore and Cherry, which had provided a home to an estimated 110 homeless people for as much as five years.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on November 7, 2002.

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